Culture and heritage


Azure, a cross argent

As in all heraldic blazons the description of the Arms begins with the colour of the shield followed by the description and colour of the principle charge: Azure, a cross argent (Blue, a silver cross). This is perhaps the oldest of all heraldic descriptions in Australian heraldry, and one of the earliest Australian symbols.

At its simplest, the description refers to the silver stars of the southern cross against the blue skies of the southern hemisphere. The earliest grant of a coat of arms to an Australian organisation, the Church of England Diocese of Australia, was made in 1836 and was simply blazoned as 'Four Stars of eight Points in cross' (Four silver stars each of eight points arranged in a cross shape, on a blue field) - as shown in the photograph above. This window was designed by David Saunders, and installed in St James Anglican Church, Queen's Square, Sydney in 1973 (Henderson: 188; Annable)

Simple designs were characteristic of the earliest phase in the development of heraldry in medieval Europe, and this also appears to be the case in early colonial societies such as New South Wales. Over time these early designs are elaborated upon in order to distinguish one from another. The earliest known version of the Advance Australia Arms (Captain Silk's Arms c1821) shows a blue and white field with a blue cross bearing silver stars, and an early flag known as the New South Wales Ensign of 1831 shows a white field with a blue cross bearing white stars. Variations on this theme include the Eureka Flag (1854), the Federation Flag (1890s-1900s), which is almost identical to the NSW Ensign, and the current national flag.

The fundamental element of the NSW Coat of Arms, a white cross on a blue field, is thus connected with the earliest heraldic and vexillological representations of NSW and Australian identity.

Some questions to research:

  1. How many other examples of a white Southern Cross on a blue field can be observed in the symbols of other states and countries?
  2. What evidence is there of the use of the Southern Cross by mariners in the Southern Hemisphere?
Image source: Stephen Szabo, Heraldry Australia, 21st September 2002
Page last updated: 01 September 2012